One of Arkansas' claims to fame is the Crater of Diamonds State Park, just outside Murfreesboro, in south Arkansas. It's down the road a piece from Washington, population less than 100, the town which was the home of the "Bowie knife", and not far at all from Bill's Town, just outside Delight, birthplace of Glen Campbell.
In this unprepossessing bit of south Arkansas woodland, there is a plowed field, which happens to be located right on an old, extinct volcanic cone. The volcano is discernible, but nearly entirely flat, so that one might as well be on some farm property. But it isn't farm property. It's a diamond mine.
Diamonds have always been found in this country, usually "alluvial" ones that are found in river sediment. But until the Crater of Diamonds was located, nobody had found a genuine North American "diamond pipe". When a lucky farmer realized that he was sitting, literally, on top of a diamond mine, the frabjous day, callooh, callay enthusiasm led to mining companies, high hopes and a world of hopeful folks. In fact, though, no commercial diamond mining operation on the site has ever really paid. The park has instead spent most of its time as a state park, open to the public, where one goes and pays a few dollars and combs a plowed field for diamonds.
I have the good fortune to have had one of those "hobby dads". My father always had one to three hobbies going at any given time. History, building a Model T from near scratch, drilling water wells--you name it. He always approaches his hobbies with a gusto that I envy and admire. When he took up rockhounding, he didn't just collect tiger eye agates and such--he became a certified gemologist.
What's more, my family began its dozens of pilgrimages to the Crater of Diamonds State Park.
The park was really cool when I was a kid. A park official in a little building that doubled as a gift shop sorted through the rocks one found, to tell you if you found a diamond. The diamond pipe was filled with lots of crystals--cheap, chunky calcite, nice quartz and amethyst, and a world of similar non-diamondy things.
I never found a diamond, though I once did find a charming peridot.
But what matters is that my father found a diamond his first time out, and from then on, he was hooked. His being hooked meant, in essence, we were all hooked, as if we were on a diamond-baited trotline.
There's some sublime, if subliminal, pleasure in spending an entire Sunday afternoon walking a plowed field staring at various semi-precious stones, hoping to find a precious stone. It's a bit like dating, except there's far less rejection. One dreams great dreams while picking up calcite and watching for the glint of a diamond.
My father's first diamond was the first of only two total he found. He never became one of those locals who finds a diamond every time.
The first one was a little canary yellow one, barely gem quality.
The second was darkish, only good for industrial use. He put them both in pill bottles, and did not use them or set them at all. I no longer have any stone I found at the park. My father's current hobby is the Ouachita River.
But I have a rich treasure trove of memories still--little hole in the wall rock shops where massive geodes cost nearly nothing. The thrill of emptying a tiny paper sack of crystal into the sorting tray, praying that some of the quartz was really diamond. Watching determined people use a pump and sluice to try to "pan" for diamonds. Feeling the sweat on one's brow in humid summer weather, realizing that one has spent an entire Sunday afternoon staring at a plowed field, hunting in vain for a diamond.
Other diamond mines have been discovered on this continent since, and more will be discovered, if reason is any guide. I tend to prefer the emeralds, rubies, and even garnets to diamonds these days. I remember just enough about rocks to make it through an afternoon at the Tuscon rock show pretending I know what I am talking about. I even tried to stop at Rockhounders' State Park in New Mexico when I drove from Los Angeles to Dallas during our 2000 move, but I found that geode-hunting is pretty futile when two lhasas are on the leash in 100 degree weather. I have not been to the Crater of Diamonds State Park in some twenty years. But I'll always have a fondness inside for this curious place in which most of what glittered was not diamond (did I mention the amazing "fool's gold" deposits?), but where everything somehow turned up gem-like for me.